Josh Malihabadi | December 05 1894 to 22 February 1982


Aur tu aur khud insan baha jata hy
ketna pur hol hy tufan-e-rawayat aay Josh
Ehl-e-alfaz shariat pay maray jatay hain
Kis ko samjhaon masheyat k isharat aay Josh

Josh Malihabadi will be remembered as Shayar-e-Shabab (poet of beauty) and Shayar-e-Inqilab (rebel poet). This 20th century master poet’s life and work has gained public attention, in the recent years, for its creative thought and rebellion against all forms of establishment and norms. Throughout his tumultuous and eventful life, as the poet migrated to Pakistan much later at the age of 58 to Pakistan, he remained, a misunderstood and controversial poet. Josh is considered only second to Mir Taqi Mir for his rich additions to Urdu language’s diction and vocabulary.

Poetry is inspiration alone. I do not value to meaning in poetry. When meanings are added to expression, the poet ranks higher. A piece of literature is based on expression,

quoting Josh from his Radio Pakistan interview.

Josh proved to the best in every genre of literature that he chose. His proclivity for Rubaai inspired many seasoned poets turn to writing them. In his early¬ years he wrote beautiful Ghazals, however, later in life he chose Nazm as his favoured genre. Josh created a niche via his Marsia nigari, he wanted to modernize the genre. His Marsia was not about lamenting and rue but he focused on making people celebrate the sacrifice for just cause.

A master writer and a great poet deserves an autobiography like this …to my limited knowledge no great poet has been so candid about recording his life,

Maulana Mahir ul Qadri (Josh’s contemporary).

Yadon ki baraat wasn’t preplanned. I wrote on as I recalled events of my life. Looking back at it, I think there is so much I have missed out on writing and some things could have been abridged, quoting Josh from his Radio Pakistan interview.

In prose Josh’s autobiography, Yadon ki Baraat, was controversial in many ways and made waves in the literary world—for his audacity to write truth and challenge the traditional norms. Among other things he had reported 18 love affairs in this volume. Despite being controversial, the autobiography is worth its weight in gold for its literary, political, historical and biographical value. In his autobiography, Josh praised his wife for her ruin, her understanding, and her knack.

Josh wrote over a 100 000 couplets and more than a 1000 Rubaaiyat. He published

16 collections of poetry until 1947. Some of the titles are Shola Shabnam, Shair ki Raatein, Fikar e Nishaat, Saif o Sabo, Junoon o Hikmat, Hurf o Hikayat, Arsh o Farsh, etc. After migrating to Pakistan, however he published 5 more collections: Tuloo e Fikar, Maujod o Fikar, Ilhaam o Ifkaar, Najoom o Jawahir, Mehraab o Mazrab (The last collection  last published in 93 by Jang publishers). His prose publications include Maqalaat e Zareen, Isharaat aur Khudnosht, and Yadon ki Baraat.

I never think that I am a poet master. The day one thinks so, their decline starts. I am aware of my shortcomings. I am only able to describe 20-15 per cent of the way I observe the horizon. 80 per cent stays unsaid within me.

Kon samjhe ye sher kese hen or kese nahin

Dil samajhta he jese dil me they wesey nahin

I consider my ability to expresses my senses incomplete. Ideas are abundant but words are like limited vehicles. A multitude of ideas are lost for not finding the appropriate vehicle. The passengers are in billions but the vehicles aren’t enough. The scarcity of words has been a major handicap(for me). The scarcity of words has been a regret for me that what I think I cannot explain in words. My thoughts are made of gold, but expressed in brass, quoting Josh from his Radio Pakistan interview.

Shabbir Hassan Khan, his real name, was born in Malihabad, a city near Lucknow in a wealthy Pathan family. His close aides state that his family had migrated from their home in Dara e Khyber, and the poet was proud of his Pathan lineage and Afridi clan. Given the status of his family, Josh received excellent education going on to elite British and Muslim academic institutions.

“‘Can’t say how I started writing and why I chose poetry. I wrote my first poem at 9 (years of age),” quoting Josh from his Radio Pakistan interview.

At first he chose Shabbir as a nome de plume, later changed to Josh. Rooh-e-Adab, his first collection of poetry was published in 1921. Josh was only 25-years old at the time. Josh’s life and work emanates a love for language and poetry and that his family had a tradition of poetry, though no record has been published.

Josh’s love of language was seen in his emphasis on using the classical and literary language. Josh was a stickler for correct pronunciation. Indulging in colloquialism was for the poet stepping into the muddying waters of mediocrity. The puritanical master of Urdu considered that layman terms damaged the essence of the language. He was very particular about the correct Urdu usage and pronunciation. His friends and peers felt embarrassed and sometimes even humiliated at Josh’s reaction to such a practice and hesitated to speak in his presence.

After his education, Josh started working at Usmania University’s Darul Tasneef o Tarjuma (Department of literature and translations) in Hyderabad Deccan. At the period his love poetry got a lot of commendation from the literary circles. The poet then moved to Delhi and launched his own literary magazine, Kaleem. Josh became friends with leading scholars and poets: Rabinder Nath Tagore, Mirza Hadi Ruswa and Sarojni Naidu, etc. Tagore inspired in Josh, the love of humanism. Upon his offer, Josh spent 6 months in Shanti Niketan.

In 1918 Josh went to the National Congress for the first time and met giants like Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad for the first time. In his later years he became particularly close to the latter two. An anecdote by his companion speaks of Josh’s quick wit. Josh was asked to wait upon visiting Maulana Azad at his office. After waiting a while, Josh wrote a couplet for him and left. Upon reading the couplet Maulana sent a man to fetch Josh.

Kya zaroori he khoon kholana

Phir kisi or din Maulana

Josh’s earlier poetry was beautiful, full of sensory appeal and romantic. However WWII changed all that. A sensitive soul, soon Josh found solidarity with leading poets like Allama Iqbal’s poetry about free India. Iqbal, in a way, paved his way towards rebellion. Josh was offered a position by the British, which he never accepted. Josh never looked back or regretted his decision to question the right of a few subjugate any people. He was later accused and paid a heavy price for his anti establishment, his anti-religious, liberal and secular views.

Suno aey sakinane khaake pasti

Sadaa kya aa rahi he aasman se

Ke azadi ka ik lamha he behter

Ghlumai ki hayat e jawidaan se

It was around this period, that one of his poems, Company ke farzandon se khitaab (Address to the Company’s sons), was confiscated by the British. The soldiers came to raid his home and found nothing. Josh, unyielding, said that poetry lived in his heart and not in any drawer and wrote a subsequent poem called Talaashi (Search).

This is the phase when Josh became an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. His poetry during the WWII was openly rebelling against the colonialists. It was the time of the freedom movement and Josh’s ideas and writings gained popularity.

Josh’s poem Ferab-e-Hasti poem received critical acclaim from friends and rivals. One such rival and critic of Josh, Niaz Fateh Puri, declared that the poem alone places Josh on the same rank as Iqbal and Hali.

The legendary Indian thespian Dilip Kumar is also a Josh buff. He would never sit next to the poet but would place himself at his feet as a mark of respect, Farrukh Malihabadi writes in his grandfather’s memoire.

Pressing financial needs made Josh travel between Bombay (now Mumbai), Pune and Calcutta to make ends meet. From 1943-48 he became associated with Shalimar pictures Pune. He edited literary magazines, i.e., Aaj Kal and Basarat from 1949-55.

Lucknow ki aaj bhi wo rang ralian dil me hen

Pehle jo zer e qadam thi ab wo galiyan dil me hen

In 1955 Josh decided to move to Pakistan. He was concerned that Urdu may not be allowed to flourish in India, as it could in Pakistan due to ‘narrow-minded nationalism of Hindus.’

Upon discussing this with Nehru, he replied that “its your personal choice.” Nehru though asked Josh to talk it out with the Maulana (Azad). Maulana Azad tried to dissuade Josh by saying that he had overpaid the price of hub ul watni and watan dosti (love and friendship of a country). But Josh had made up his mind.

The only decision, his close aides say, he rued in his life.

My poetry will be understood when people will have better intellectual ability. People don’t understand me now, quoting Josh from his Radio Pakistan interview.

The welcome Josh found in Pakistan was lukewarm. His erstwhile countrymen had already labeled him as a traitor. But this new country’s literary circle was weary of receiving him. They accused him of initially being against the formation of Pakistan and then seeking refuge in it. Josh was miserable. Right-wing writers conspired against him and he wasn’t invited to the first Ahl e Qalam (literary) Conference. Although he had put a brave front against the western rulers in India, fighting his discrimination at the hands of his own countrymen was too much to face.

Soz-e-gham day k mujhay os ny yeh irshad keya

Ja tujhay kashmakash-e-dehar say azad keya

Josh spent most of his life in Pakistan under military dictatorship, which was even more asphyxiating for the sensitive poet. Josh’s grandson Farrukh Malihabadi wrote in his biography that Once General Ayub Khan, tried to flatter Josh sahib and called him a great Alam (scholar). To this the poet immediately replied that the right word is Alim, not Alam. This made Ayub cringe and he gave orders that the cement agency, Josh sahib ran, be shut down. And it happened. Josh’s house was also confiscated during the Ayub reign.

“Yun Karachi me hun jis tara se kufe me hen Hussein

Sab shahadat ke hen asaraat chana jor garam, “

as recalled by Josh’s longtime confidant.

Josh’s Karachi home buzzed with cultural activities and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mustafa Zaidi and Nasir Kazmi were welcomed guests. Mustafa Zaidi was mentored by Josh. Josh once commented on Faiz, “I don’t have a good opinion of Urdu poets’ predilection. They badmouth each other. In my entire life I have come across only three or four good-natured poets, and Faiz is one of them.” But this was the extent of his welcome of the migrant poet. However, when Z. A. Bhutto made Josh the Honourary Trustee of the Urdu Tarraqi Board in the 1960s, Josh moved to Islamabad.

“Karachi iss kurra-e-arz ka sabse bara dushman-e-ilm o nazar shehr hay,”

Josh wrote in the monthly Afkaar of 1982.

“Karachi nay chhoton ko ubhara aur baron ko dafna diya,”

On another unspecified occasion, Josh says,

According to the Iftikhar Malihabadi, Josh was requested to give an interview to Radio Pakistan, during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government. He was promised not to air it during his lifetime. Josh spoke frankly about the Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal, which, to him, were not derogatory. However, the interview was somehow published in Zindigi, a magazine of a religious party. Consequently, a delegation of religious scholars demanded that the then dictator General Ziaul Haq withdraw all of his state privileges, including a house allotted by the government to Josh. The facilities were not revoked, but Josh was blacklisted from the official media, and his work was removed from textbooks. Farrukh criticises the silence of other literary figures, which isolated Josh completely.

Poetry will change its hue. Until now poetry is more emotional, but in future poetry will have less emotions and will be scientific. Its foundation will address scientific and philosophical approaches, quoting Josh from his Radio Pakistan interview.

Despite the turmoil faced during his life, Josh Malihabadi was a tireless optimist. He is perhaps the only South Asian poet laureate of 20th century to have won the Padma Bhushan (1954), and Hilal-e-Imtiaz (2013) for his services.

Josh was a diehard Marxist, humanist, secular intellectual (read rebel), who never shied from speaking his mind. His services to the richness of Urdu poetry will forever illuminate the imagination of literary buffs.

Finally, to defend Josh’s conviction in the ideology of Pakistan, Farrukh quotes his poem ‘Waqt ki Awaz,’ published in 1945:

Khud dekh apnay uskay tarano mein ikhtilaf
Wahmon mein ikhtilaf, gumanon mein ikhtilaf
Qisson mein ikhtilaf, fasanon mein ikhtilaf
Lehjon mein ikhtilaf, zubanon mein ikhtilaf
Ho aik hi rawash pe, magar chaal aur hai
Go maika to aik hai, susraal aur hai
Har nehaj se ghalat ke hazoori hi khoob hai
Qurbat mein ho fasaad to doori hi khoob hai

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